As pretty much everyone knows, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich likes to cast himself as an expert on just about everything thanks to his long ago PhD in history. He’s even claimed that he was hired by Freddie Mac to give advice “as a historian” rather than to give strategic advice to Freddie’s top lobbyist about “business and public policy issues.”
But less well-known is the role Gingrich played in undermining the historic preservation of the House of Representatives. Thanks to Gingrich’s meddling, the office of the Historian of the House was vacant for a decade. From Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s book, The Broken Branch:
The reaction of new members has been matched by the growing indifference of committee and party leaders to the history and independent role of their own institutions and by a widespread acceptance by congressional leaders that the ends justify the means.
One small but meaningful example of this is the House Historian. The historian’s office was created in 1983 and was ably filled by historian Ray Smock until January 1995, when he was fired by incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich then moved to appoint Christina Jeffrey, a political scientist from Kennesaw State College in Georgia. Jeffrey lasted a few days — when controversial comments she had made several years earlier caused enough of an outcry that Gingrich fired her. He did not replace her, and the post of House Historian stood vacant for a full decade, with neither Gingrich nor his successor, Speaker Dennis Hastert interested enough to fill the job or energize the office. Finally, in 2005, Hastert appointed the veteran historian and author Robert Remini from his home state of Illinois to fill the position. But the decade-long indifference to the importance of the history of the House underscored the decline in institutional identity in the House.
Jeffery was fired by Gingrich after it was revealed she had criticized an educational program on the Holocaust for having “no evidence of balance or objectivity.” “The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view and it is not presented; nor is that of the Ku Klux Klan,” said Jeffrey.
In a January 1995 column for Roll Coll, Norm Ornstein argued that the appointment of Jeffrey in the first place was a flagrant insult to the study of the history of the House:
Forget the Holocaust-related controversy; the fact is that, even if she had never uttered or written one outrageous or controversial thing, she was wholly unqualified for the position. She is neither a historian nor a Congressionalist. Indeed, she made it quite clear from the beginning that she knew little at all about the House in its contemporary operation, much less anything about its history.
Ray Smock, the first House Historian, is a solid, credentialed, thoroughly competent professional. It was the prerogative of the new majority to redefine his position, replace him, or both; it was their prerogative, if they desired, to eliminate the post.
But it was foolish in the extreme to replace a first-rate historian with somebody lacking any of the basic credentials for the post. It was an equally large mistake to take a position filled in the first instance in a bipartisan way with a nonpartisan professional, and fill it with a partisan and ideological crony. [Roll Call, 1/16/1995]
After first merging the Historian’s Office with several other departments in the Office of the House Clerk, the office was effectively abolished in a 1998 reorganization plan that demoted the one trained archivist working in the House and drew intense criticism from historians and archivists [Roll Call, 2/23/1998]. Then-House Clerk Robin Carle claimed, “It would be a mistake to interpret the reorganization within my offices to be a signal of a weakening of commitment to archival and historic preservation functions.” But Carle’s claims did not satisfy the the chair of the Congressional Papers Roundtable of the Society of American Archivist, Mark Greene, who wrote to her, “It is hard for us not to conclude that the reorganization will result–however unintentionally–in ‘a weakening of . . . archival and historic preservation functions.’”
Concerted efforts to improve the historic preservation of the House only got underway after Gingrich resigned from office, culminating in the the naming of Remini as Historian of the House in 2005. Since then, the commitment to the history of the House has been bipartisan, with the offices of Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner working together in 2010 to find Remini’s replacement, Dr. Matthew Wasniewski.
Ironically, in light of his role in the decade-long abandonment of the office of House Historian, Gingrich “authored the bill initially establishing the Historian’s Office”:
The Historian’s Office was first created to prepare for Congress’s bicentennial, which occurred in 1989. Though Gingrich’s bill would have let the office expire that year, House Democrats drafted a rules change that made the House Historian a permanent post under the control of the Speaker.
In 1982, after the House defeated a Gingrich proposal that would have established a permanent historical office, Gingrich delivered a speech extolling the virtues of preserving the chamber’s records.
“Some people have no appreciation for the power of ideas, of the difficulty of organizing learning, of the problems creating for an entire nation a bicentennial,” he said. “I offered this resolution because I believe passionately in the importance of the people’s house as the only long-term bulwark we have against tyranny.” [Roll Call, 2/23/1998]
In that same speech, Gingrich declared, “Members can vote against the resolution (to create the office). Members can save less than the cost of one junket. And the members can go home and beat their breasts for ignorance and tell people how they stopped the development of knowledge.”
The first House Historian, Raymond Smock, who was fired by Gingrich, worried about the impact that the clipping of the office’s wings would have. “Just as Alzheimer’s is one of the most insidious diseases one can get, to develop Alzheimer’s about history is just as disabling,” said Smock in 1995. This past December, Smock took some revenge on Gingrich, penning an article for the History News Network that described the influence that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has had on Gingrich’s thinking. Smock closed the article by writing, “Two thousand years ago Cicero observed that to be ignorant of history was to remain always a child. To which we might add a Gingrich corollary: to confuse science fiction with reality is to remain always a child.”